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Irene Ernest’s Story

Diversity, Facing Diversity: Marshallese Stories from Inclusive Dubuque (Dubuque, Iowa)

As told by Art Roche

My mother was Marshallese and my father was Kosraean. That’s the island where my grandfather was king. Kosrae is the place, Kosraeans are the people. Kosrae isn’t one of the Marshall Islands. Today, it’s part of the Federated States of Micronesia. So yes, I’m a princess, but not anymore. They don’t have kings or princesses anymore but they still call it royal blood in our family. They still respect that.

I grew up in Ponapei. I was about fifteen years old. I tried to finish high school but I didn’t make it. I applied for a job because only my father worked in my family –as a captain for the government of the Marshall Islands. I needed to go out there and try to find my future. I was in school for about a year and then I quit at age 15. I had two kinds of jobs—in the store working as a cashier, and in the restaurant as a waitress. I worked for about four years and that’s when I met my husband at about age 19.

So we got married about eight months after we met. Without my parents’ permission.

The night we got married I called my parents to come. My father was not in favor of it so he didn’t show up. But my mom did. But she didn’t enter the house– she stayed outside. We were married in my husband’s parents’ house. It was not a big fancy wedding.

I was wearing my home dress- the one I wear all the time. I was cooking and preparing the food for the wedding. It was the day of my son’s first birthday. It’s a very special day and a big celebration in our culture. We didn’t mention the wedding to anyone. All of a sudden my step parents wanted us to get married before my son’s first birthday party. So we did, just an hour before. People came for the birthday party, not the wedding. People didn’t know we were getting married then. The birthday party was at my parents’ house. But the wedding was nearby at my in-laws’ house.

This all happened on July 25, 1987, in the evening around 6 o’clock. Everybody was there, all the family, making food for the birthday.

Jenta, my husband, was sick the night we were going to get married two days earlier. He was sick the night we got married too but we did it anyway. We had a pastor come to do the ceremony for the wedding and also to bless the first birthday party. The wedding took about 45 minutes. No rings, no flowers. We just put our hands on the bible. We were so young that we didn’t realize the wedding was very important. We didn’t prepare for it. But we knew the birthday party was important. It was kind of like “Why not get married?” But we were pretty committed to each other.

Jenta is about six years older than me. He was 25, I was 19.

It didn’t take long. We were rushing so we could get back to the birthday party. No one knew that we were having another ceremony at that time.

You asked me why do people marry in the Marshall Islands? Do they marry for love or for economic reasons or other reasons? Well, we know that if couples are not married it’s not right because, according to the bible, if two persons love each other, we don’t want to be a couple without marrying. That’s one of our religious rules, that’s why we get married. And, sure there was also an element of love. All we know back home, is get married, be a happy couple, take care of your kids. That’s how our parents taught us- if you love each other you should be married before you have your children. We didn’t quite do that but almost. We knew we wanted to get married. It was not a financial reason.

I have two brothers and one sister. They were not at the wedding. They were at the birthday party. At the wedding there was Jenta’s parents, his older sister, not my mom because she wouldn’t come into the house because she didn’t approve of my husband.

Jenta’s sister and father were witnesses and my mom. We had to call her inside, and she wasn’t happy about that. And she was never happy about my marriage to Jenta. She chose to go that way until she died. She never talked with him and was never happy with him. Even though we would go to their house and visit—she’d never say hi, only my dad.

Jenta is a diabetic. His diabetes went untreated for a long time and that’s why we came to the United States. He doesn’t drink or smoke any longer but diabetes is still a problem. His life was changed, after eight years.

We came to Hawaii in 2008. In 2009, after going back to Marshall Islands briefly we came here. First to Enid, Oklahoma for three or four months but we were planning to come here to Dubuque. We came here looking for health care. In Enid and in Hawaii we couldn’t get any healthcare but we knew we could in Dubuque and we did. We heard from Jenta’s family who used to live here in Dubuque, one of his nephews. His sister told us “there’s no place they can help you without insurance but Dubuque, Iowa.” We went to Crescent. I’m still not sure how it happened, but Jenta was able to see a doctor and get eye surgery. The pharmacists taught us how to take care of ourselves with the medicines that we take and we learned how to prepare our food. I am also a diabetic but not as bad as Jenta.

Then we got dismissed from care. I didn’t understand—every time they mailed me I didn’t check my mail very carefully and that’s why we got dismissed from care. And I thought we could pay just a little each month but then I didn’t do that either.

Now because of the Dubuque Marshall Islands Health Project, both Jenta and I are back in care with Crescent.

You may not believe it but I was told by an American missionary, he looked at everybody and he picked me and he said, “You’re going to go to a different world which is not your language and you’re going to be working with all these different people, different denominations and with the high-ranked people and you’ll work for the Marshallese people,” and it’s coming true! I said, “God let me be part of it” and he is.

I can’t wait!


This story originally appeared in Facing Diversity: Marshallese Stories, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by the Inclusive Dubuque Network in Dubuque, Iowa.

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